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E. L. Doctorow: Billy Bathgate

I must confess to a certain weakness for US gangster books and films. Perhaps it is the idea of the flawed hero, fighting against society. Or perhaps not. This novel is about the really flawed US gangster, Dutch Schultz. The story is seen through the eyes of Billy Bathgate. In the flashback, we meet him as a fifteen-year street kid in the Bronx. Schultz sees Billy juggling and is impressed. Billy is soon working for Schultz. Billy’s father had long since left the family home, so Schultz and his accountant/right-hand man, Otto Berman, become surrogate fathers to Billy, though both in their different ways. Billy particularly looks up to Schultz whom he sees as a man fighting a heroic fight against a despotic government.

The tarnish, however, starts to wear off, when Billy sees Schultz’s gratuitous murder of a fire inspector. When Drew Preston arrives on the scene, things start to change. Schultz is on trial in upstate New York, so the gang adjourns to try (successfully) to influence the people there in Schultz’s favour. Drew Preston, former girlfriend of Bo Weinberg and now of Schultz, is concealed as Billy’s governess. The pair spend some time together and, inevitably, Billy falls for her. With further murders witnessed, Billy is more and more implicated. When Schultz is found not guilty, Attorney General Thomas Dewey still goes after him and Schultz plans to kill Dewey but Lucky Luciano has other plans. Historically, Schultz’s treasure has never been found but Billy makes it clear that, as Schultz was dying, he was able to get the information out of him. Billy, though implicated in various crimes, comes off scot free even though Schultz and his cronies are painted as the gangsters that they were. Doctorow’s take, apart from the creation of Billy, is not particularly original but is still a story well told.

Publishing history

First published 1989 by Random House